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Erick Brownstein: Engineering Social Innovation

| Friday March 6th, 2009 | 2 Comments

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In order for a for-profit organization to effectively engage in philanthropic activities, it must extend beyond charitable giving programs and tossing donations at the flavor-of-the-month cause. It must be rooted in an authentic commitment to using revenue as a vehicle for driving sustainable change. But even beyond that, enterprise needs to continually innovate to create new opportunities for change and elevate the ways in which capitalists, consumers, and causes can come together to catapult consciousness to new heights.
Erick Brownstein, a new media strategist and idea man, is focused on helping businesses elevate their thinking to bring creativity to the forefront of socially-motivated campaigns. For the past 4 1/2 years, he’s been working with the Innovation Team at Advanta, one of the nation’s largest issuers of credit cards to small business owners. With the bank, he’s currently focused on ideablob.com and its sister project, bloblive.
Ideablob.com is an award-winning online community dedicated to entrepereneurial ideas. It is a place where people submit ideas for new businesses and ventures, give and get advice about those ideas and then compete for a monthly $10k prize. Nearly 80% of the over 100 finalists and 15 winners have been social entrepreneurs. Funded by Advanta, ideablob serves as a forum for conscious enterprise to reach the community and gives entrepreneurs a voice — and the capital — to change the world.


1. How do you define for-profit philanthropy?
I view it as a branch of social entrepreneurship. For-profit is clearly defining itself. By attaching the word philanthropy to it, we’re now saying the venture is for-profit, but with a purpose. The concept of philanthropy has clearly been evolving. According to Wikipedia, the word philanthropy is derived from Latin, meaning “to love people.” It has been associated with donating, or giving away with no expected return. For many people who think about being philanthropic by creating a project to “do good,” the default organizational/economic structure is non-profit. But what’s changing is that many people are exploring the benefits of creating self-sustaining projects that are not dependent on handouts/donations from members or foundations. So for me, “for-profit philanthropy” represents the development of self-sustaining economic models for doing good.
2. Please describe your philanthropic business plan and your current charitable activities.
As I grow my own business, I think about philanthropy in two ways. First, I want to help business recognize, and benefit from, opportunities to support and develop meaningful projects. The other piece of my philanthropic business plan is doing pro-bono work to help cool projects without a budget get rolling; for example, The Useless Project. Specific to Advanta, their mission is to support entrepreneurs and small business owners. With ideablob and bloblive, we were not only looking to provide practical benefits to the Advanta customer base, but also to provide a platform to empower their small business owner/entrepreneur customers to give back and help other aspiring entrepreners by sharing their expertise and advice.
3. How do you communicate the impact of these efforts to your customers?
You want people to learn about your efforts, love them, and tell others about them. PR and the phrase du jour, “cause-related marketing,” can certainly help with getting the word out. Assuming the project is great, people will love it. However, if you want people to become your advocates and evangelists, it’s not just about communicating the impact of your efforts to your customers, it’s also about communicating with your customers. Social media strategies, tools, and channels are oriented towards the new communications landscape where people don’t want to only be spoken to. Marketing and PR, in general, don’t empower customers. Social media does and should be an essential ingredient in answering any “how to effectively communicate with customers” questions.
4. Why do you think it’s important for companies to adopt philanthropy as part of their revenue model?
For a client customer, there are some basic arguments to make on behalf of engaging in a philanthropic venture… it’s good for employee morale; given the choice between two similar products or services, most people will choose the one from the brand they believe is doing positive things in the world. Perhaps the more subtle reason is that it inspires innovative thinking. We can assume that most people inside and outside of a business would like to see those companies doing good things in the world. If that’s the case, then it takes some creative smarts to figure out how.
5. What would you say is the most critical element in successfully implementing philanthropic endeavors?
I’m sure there are a lot of good operational answers, but I’ll go with authentic communication. Peoples’ BS detectors are extremely sensitive and finely tuned these days. Being honest proactively and reactively is crucial.
Name: Erick Brownstein
Title: Founder
Company: ErickB Worldwide
Website: Linked In Profile
Contact:: e@ebrownstein.com | Twitter: @ErickB


▼▼▼      2 Comments     ▼▼▼

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  • Mark

    Erick’s comments are very insightful. As someone who has personally benefitted from his advice on how combining making profits to help grow a business with doing some good in the world makes sense, I can testify to what a sound approach it is.
    Making money is not a bad thing. It is good and should be embraced. But with it comes some responsibilities beyond the bottom line and those need to be as carefully considered as “shareholder value.” That’s sort of a meaningless phrase now, anyway, given the decline in value that most shares have experience over the last few months!
    Businesses can use the power of consumerism to do good in the world. And if there is real integrity behind what they do, I believe they will floursh.

  • http://PhilosophersNotes.com Brian Johnson

    brilliant.
    for more mojo on this subject: I turn to mackey’s debate w/friedman: http://tinyurl.com/8ene43

    mackey and michael strong’s non-profit: http://flowidealism.com

    two great books i’m diggin as well:
    “Conscious Business” by Fred Koffman
    and
    “Peak” by Chip Conley

    thx for the great article/interview!

    -bri